Suggestions that the RCMP should have tested clothing seized from Robert Pickton in 1997 for DNA sooner are hindsight, but the facts are there was no reason for investigators working on an attempted murder case at the time to test them, a federal government lawyer told a public inquiry.
Mr. Pickton's clothing and a pair of handcuffs were seized after a brutal attack on his farm in Port Coquitlam, B.C., which left a prostitute from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside near death with severe stab wounds.
The evidence sat in a police locker until after Mr. Pickton's arrest in 2002. Subsequent tests revealed DNA from two other missing sex workers.
The fact the Mounties were sitting on evidence for five years linking Mr. Pickton to two missing prostitutes has been held up as proof police officers working on the case failed to do enough to prevent the serial killer from murdering more women.
But RCMP lawyer Cheryl Tobias said Tuesday there was never any reason to test the clothes for DNA, since the identities of the suspect and victim were known. Mr. Pickton never denied his involvement, but claimed self-defence.
“This was a situation in which you had the victim and the alleged offender telling two different stories,” Ms. Tobias said as she cross-examined an Ontario police officer who conducted an external review of the Pickton investigations.
“This is not a case in which there was any particular issue about whether or not there had been a stabbing; we knew who the people involved were. So there's no detailed DNA analysis done at this point, and I would suggest that there was no need for one.”
Ms. Tobias was cross-examining Deputy Chief Jennifer Evans of Ontario's Peel Regional Police, who conducted an external review for the commission.
Deputy Chief Evans suggested that even if officers wanted to test the evidence for DNA, they likely would have faced resistance.
“In 1997, if I harken back to my own career, if I tried to get an analysis done on this type of case, I don't think I would have been successful,” Deputy Chief Evans said. “The offender and the victim were both agreeing that they were involved in this altercation. Normally, DNA analysis would be done if Pickton was suggesting he was never there.”
But Deputy Chief Evans still argues the evidence should have been analyzed at least two years before Mr. Pickton's arrest, as investigators saw him as a main suspect in the disappearance of Downtown Eastside sex workers.
In her report, Deputy Chief Evans noted a memo produced after a meeting in February, 2000, included a list of steps that could be taken to further the investigation, including: “Handcuffs from 1997 stabbing should be sent to lab to try and obtain DNA of other victims.”
Deputy Chief Evans’s report describes that idea as an “excellent investigative strategy to determine if any other DNA was found, but unfortunately it was not pursued.”
On Tuesday, another RCMP lawyer, Judith Hoffman, noted the handcuffs themselves didn't contain any DNA when they were tested in 2004. The inquiry hasn't heard whether officers working the case in 2000 ever considered testing Mr. Pickton's clothing, as well.
Ms. Hoffman also pointed out there was no central databank for missing-persons DNA, and Vancouver police hadn't completed DNA profiles of samples they had because they, too, had nothing to compare them with.
Deputy Chief Evans replied that any DNA, even if it couldn't immediately be compared with missing women, would have raised a flag for investigators.
“It would have revealed if there was any DNA, and that could have helped investigators say, ‘Okay, whose DNA is this?’ ” Deputy Chief Evans said.
An internal report prepared by the RCMP stressed that Mr. Pickton was just one of many suspects that police were investigating, and Ms. Tobias repeated that point on Tuesday.
She took Deputy Chief Evans through numerous memos sent within the Vancouver Police Department in the late 1990s that pointed out investigators had at least a dozen people they considered “top suspects” in the disappearances of sex workers. One memo lamented there was “no end to the strange, violent men who could be considered persons of interest.”
Mr. Pickton was also considered a possible suspect in murders that later turned out to be the work of other people, Ms. Tobias said.
She argued investigators had a massive task to rule out potential suspects, and couldn't risk having “tunnel vision” by focusing on just one person and ignoring others.
“You've got a lot of potential suspects, you can't do everything at once, you can't investigate them all thoroughly at the same time,” Ms. Tobias said.
Mr. Pickton was arrested in 2002 after police, armed with a search warrant related to illegal firearms, showed up at his farm, where they immediately found the belongings and remains of missing sex workers.
He was eventually convicted of six counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. The remains or DNA of 33 women were found on his farm. He claimed to have killed 49.
The Canadian Press